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Theory Project 3: Beating Time

David Raleigh Arnold

What is the purpose of learning to beat time?

Purpose 1. To keep track of the beats

When you beat time, your hand and arm move, but no sound is made. The primary reason that it is important for any musician to practice beating time is that it provides a way of visualizing the counts of the measure and relating the counts to something physical. Is there another way? I don’t think so. You can practice by listening to music and beating time silently, and yet you can be sure that you have not forgotten to count. The best way for a beginner to beat time is simply to follow the first three diagrams below, because that will best serve the present purpose. I don’t think that beating six, the fourth diagram, is going to help much at this stage.

    4              3               2
    |\             |\              |
    | \            | \             |
    |  \           |  \            |
2 ----- 3          |   2           |            6
 \  |              |  /            |            |
  \ |              | /             |      -------------
   \|              |/              |      |  |  |  |  |
    1              1               1      3  2  1  5  4

A Few Simple Questions

What is the downbeat?

Which beat or count is the downbeat on?

What is the upbeat?

Which count or beat is the upbeat on?

In Praise of Tradition

The preceding has been the traditional way of teaching beginners for centuries, but the original purpose is being lost in the rush to get on with teaching conducting. Sometimes the good old fashioned way is the better way, and this is one of those times.[1]

Purpose 2. To learn to follow a conductor or to conduct

The diagrams above are an exaggerated mirror image of a succession of positions of your hand, but to show how your hand really moves with loopy diagrams or pictures is a nasty business. It is better to understand that these diagrams are approximately where your hand is immediately after the beat in question. Every beat is at the bottom of a quick downward stroke, and all of the diagrams must be flattened to resemble the diagram for beating six.

These issues can easily be resolved by two adjustments:

1. Hit the beats

Grab each number out of the air or tap on top of it with a stick. You will find that now the motion at the end of your finger or the end of the stick resembles the loopy diagrams you may see elsewhere. Flatten all of the diagrams somewhat so that they more resemble the diagram for beating six.

2. Follow the upbeat.

Rather than raise your hand high before tapping the upbeat, do it after, because otherwise you will be indicating the upbeat instead of the downbeat. This can be approximated by moving the numbers for the upbeats as shown. Notice that the return after the upbeat is always to the left and up:

    .              .
    |\             |\
    | 4            | 3
    |  \           |  \
2 ----- 3          |   2      .              .
 \  |              |  /       |\             |\
  \ |              | /        |--      ---------------
   \|              |/         | |      |  |  | |  |  |
    1              1          1 2      3  2  1 6  5  4

Vary your practice.

For as long as beating time is a means of counting beats rather than conducting, practice beating time with your right hand, your left hand, and your nose.

Beat time through everything you wrote, with a finger on the paper, so that you end where the music ends. If something starts on the downbeat, you start on the upbeat. Otherwise start on the beat before the music starts, even if the music is nothing but a bunch of rests. Over time you tend to get lost on a page less and less, but sooner is better to do something about that.

Why on earth is this called “beating” time?

I’m sure you’ve seen the tiny stick which is called a “baton”. In the baton’s not-so-distant past is the meaning “big bat”. Large orchestras such as the Paris Opera had a conductor who pounded a big log on the stage to provide a beat for the players to follow. The baton evolved from a heavy pole to a tiny stick, but waving the baton is still called “beating time”, although of course you’re not hitting the floor with it and there’s quite a bit more to conducting than that.

It’s quite enough for now. You want to be good at this. You want to connect the motions and the counts in your mind. Connecting the motions and the rhythm is only important if you are actually conducting.

End Notes:

§1 Beating time and conducting are not exactly the same thing.

Beating Time vs. Conducting

The diagrams are intended only to give a start, although they have been the traditional way of teaching beginning conducting for centuries. All of the complicated loopy diagrams which you can easily find are based on them. Instead of beginning at the beginning such diagrams start in the middle, in my opinion.

Good analogies are learning a martial art, rasgeado, most dances, or rifle drill. They are learned as a series of discrete steps by convenience or necessity but not performed in that way after practice.

With experience and practice all of the beats become set by a change of motion rather than the motion itself, except possibly for the downbeat. The change of motion is always somewhat downward, because that’s the easiest way for the conductor to move his hand. That’s why all the loops and the base line, as in the 4th diagram, evolved. Obviously, conductors beat time for others rather than just for themselves. They require a delay, you don’t.

It is almost as if the beats advance, or numbers retreat, 1 to 2, 2 to 3, etc.. Pictures or diagrams always indicate the stop at the end of the motion rather than the motion itself. There is nothing new or different about that.

None of those considerations matter in the slightest for the purpose of visualizing the beat, which is the reason that all musicians should learn to beat time this way. Are the traditional diagrams merely a teaching device? Yes. Are they a teaching device just for conducting? Not on your life.

So just do it. If and when it’s time to learn to follow a conductor or conduct yourself, move on then.

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©2008 David Raleigh Arnold - http://www.openguitar.com